Agnes Martin: "...going forward into unknown territory..."
Early Paintings, 1957-67
Two shows of Agnes Martin’s work afford a unique opportunity to view both her early and late works concurrently. In a group of recent paintings at PaceWildenstein Gallery, a departure from her signature horizontal bands suggests a new horizon. A donation to Dia:Beacon of a number of little known early paintings dating from the late 1950s forms the core of an exhibition housed in Dia’s new temporary exhibition spaces, which includes Martin’s classic grid paintings from the sixties as well. It will be on view for the next year.
Agnes Martin is a legendary figure in our time, but since she escaped New York City for the isolation and expansiveness of the New Mexico landscape shortly after Ad Reinhardt’s death, these early paintings are all the more interesting since they represent her New York decade. Their tentative presence and ordinariness belies the honest beginnings of Martin’s search for the terms that she would engage to paint the nothingness that became her subject. They show us the world she inhabited before coming to the place we know as hers. They place the value of labor over that of cleverness. They seek the distant while focusing on the close at hand. What we see here is not a step-by-step progression, but rather a hint, and then an extraordinary leap into the realm that only Martin can take us to. Through a severe set of limitations, they begin to define a position for art that is limited only by the ability to perceive.
In these early works, the images of circles, both singularly and in groups, signal a desire to find a sense of wholeness or oneness akin to what Newman sought. In her mature works from just a few year later, shown in the adjoining rooms, the role of image has been significantly reduced and this same desire is realized through the process of making the work itself.
In fields of solid red and off-white, single lines drawn through the wet paint create a rectangular grid. The gesture of removal is hesitant. Her hand wavers as it navigates the topology of the canvas’ surface, yet the deviation has no counterpoint. Triangles and rectangles suggest an involvement with the rendering of forms that speaks of pre-cognition and will. The abolition of form through the repetition of horizontal and vertical lines in Martin’s signature work sublimates the will through discipline and prepares the ground to imbue her grids with immanence. It is not only Martin’s writings that have directed interpretations of her work to the light of a spiritual journey.
One thing that emerges in these early works is a sense of Martin’s focus on the space in between. In the 1957 painting "Window," a classic subject for any painter, a series of four rectangles in two different colors above and below shifts between figure and ground while the bounding whiteness that frames the vista is a white cross that then dissolves. Like a window, the relationship is between the actual and what it frames, and what is not there is foregrounded. What we see beyond the boundaries of an object is what gives it significance.
There is a yellow square painting here, divided by a band of earth colored light with yellows and yellow-oranges and whitish yellows in a kind of patchwork pattern that glows. The colors in this painting give the hint of what is to come. While the relationship between colors never seems to play the pivotal role in the later work that it does here, the colors’ thinly painted presence and the subtlety of relationships radiates a softness that contrasts with the rigid symmetry of the painting’s composition. Its here that Martin first reaches beyond the confines of her images and allows the formal vocabulary of her works to speak.
Within a few years the classic Martin grids emerge. Next to them the earlier works feel inanimate—merely canvas stretched over stretcher bars. As her works take on a new solidity, they correspond to the dimensions of a body with outstretched arms. They are fields to enter. The subtle variations of her hand, with its changing pressures up and down, transform the flatness into a shallow space where density resembles light. They slowly begin to vibrate as soon as the expectancy of seeing something wears off.
The distance between the drawn and what the grid embodies as a matrix for the ideal is the territory Martin carves out for herself. It is in this space that the nearly imperceptible opens out onto infinity if we can quiet down enough to perceive it.
Rows of white doubled strokes form a square that is framed by the pencil lines that construct the grid they are painted into. A single white line set just inside the frame frames it in turn. Each step echoes and secures the other. No edge is definitive: the immeasurable lies just outside the measurable. Agnes Martin defines how the two can meet.
The degree of precision that she demands of her making is the key to Martin’s ascension into a singular realm. If we think about what it actually means to construct one of these paintings, the repetitive actions of drawing straight lines an eighth of an inch apart on a canvas in pencil, it becomes apparent that she must remain conscious of every single aspect of her endeavor in order achieve the level of precision that these paintings give us. To maintain the constant width of the pencil line with her hand negotiating the relationship between the wearing down of the pencil and the resistance of the canvas as the canvas and the pencil connect, to maintain a constant width in the spaces between the lines, to end and begin each line at exactly the same spot over and over again—these are the impossible tasks she sets herself. And then the same degree of attention is paid to laying down the short white strokes in the space between them.
It is a job that most anyone would do using some mechanical means. I can scarcely imagine the level of concentration necessary to achieve the near perfect rendering of each grid, and yet it is the degree to which each grid deviates from a perceived ideal that gives the work its life. Martin comes close enough to that ideal to measure her distance from it, and in doing so she moves us closer to it. No obsession with perfection was ever more profound. In this haptic world, the absolute comes into view precisely by acknowledging the impossibility of its existence.
In the room of grid paintings from the sixties, light blue lines form a pattern when close-up, and then a grid in the interstitial spaces with distance. The slightly differing width of the hand-drawn lines destroys the flatness of the grid and allows it to undulate with the breath of labor. These archaic rhythms resonate in the room with a presence that is at once quiet and insistent. Each singular painting reveals another aspect of our relationship to looking at it. The red painting feels like scales that you might be able to peel off, and then as you step close they dematerialize into a thin stain that forms a watery ground. A series of narrow rectangles stacked to form a delicate mesh with time become nets poised to catch the pulse of living.
At PaceWildenstein, a group of new paintings challenge the preconceived as they usher us into an unknown territory. We have to start from scratch with these pieces, and so the early works at Dia:Beacon are invaluable in following Martin’s journey.
Everything that has come before is resting just under the surface, and there is a sense of having come full circle. How similar these new works are to those early paintings at Dia:Beacon, and yet how decisively different. A number of these paintings seem at first sight to hark back to the compositions Martin was painting in the late fifties, but unlike the earlier works, these triangles, trapezoids, and squares are not willed. They seem to emerge from an Ur-world of consciousness and so resonate with a self-evident presence. They value directness over style, spontaneity over rigor; they place knowing in the service of being.
"Homage to Life" (2003), a black trapezoid in the center of a grayed canvas reads as a square lying down; hand-drawn, its lopsided form pulls slightly to the right with a tension that brings to mind Malevich’s black square. Here the ground is painted in rows, irregular rows curving and colliding with each other. It feels as though it just happened that way as Martin set about the task of painting around the trapezoid—just being there with what she has in hand. If there is a perfection to be found in these works it is in revealing the beauty of letting things happen at will, a perfection that is perhaps harder to achieve for one searching for it than the marking of any measured regularity.
Two triangles with high-pitched yellow-green caps touch each other and the edges of the canvas, effecting a figure ground reversal in the loosely painted white that surrounds them. They seem animated in the way a Tantric painting might be: in making visible the metaphysical, their breath is the breath of life.
Vertical yellow stripes with blue-gray in between garner depth as you approach, and the blue-gray strokes begin to read as sky. But then a splash just in from the lower left corner subverts any narrative intent, reminding us that it is just paint painted in a painterly way, and that lends itself to a myriad of interpretations.
The piece that silenced me, however, is "The Sea" (2003). In a black square inside a white frame, thin straight lines have been precisely incised about an inch apart with a sharp instrument. Four short lines in between every other pair cause the eye to waver, rushing to the left and to the right as it runs up and down over the many horizons. The space of this movement tells us where Martin has been. Up close, the texture of the fast clean cuts through the acrylic ground is breathtaking. The burrs of the white under layer hover and cling to the edges of the groove. One day they will be gone.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.